We are the masters of our own stories as human beings and our understanding of the world around us rests, in part, on how we rationalise where we’ve been. In other words, how we remember and understand our lives as they have been so far. This is true of all humans, not just trans people, but it takes on a special significance for us sometimes because when you get right down to it, our pasts are what sire the discrimination and othering that we face.
For the last two weeks as some of my entries here have indicated, this has been on my mind. I’ve done a lot of reflecting on where I came from and how I understand myself as a trans woman. It is enough for me to say that I just know this is the right course, naturally. I cannot argue with the results: my future is now impatiently awaited, my energy feels boundless at times, I can actually envision myself doing something worthwhile in my future. I cannot, and do not argue with how I feel and the rightness of it all. Yet I still feel compelled to write about this, to tell the story such as it is so far.
Perhaps it is just that after having subjected myself to so many cis narratives of late, I want to put my genuine story of trans womanhood out there to counteract the lies.
Perhaps this is just something I personally need to do on the eve of my return to college, a day that marks the beginning of a life I want to live.
[I should emphasise that this is my story and mine alone. Any comparisons to certain cliches about trans life are to better illustrate my own story by contrast, not to diminish anyone else’s. If it is to be taken as any sort of instruction on trans identity it is to say we are not all the same, but neither are all trans people like me.]
So, now to the beginning…
I was a child of the 80s and born into the infamous brown bricked projects of the South Bronx where I spent the first 4 years of my life before moving to condo in a slightly less poor neighbourhood. The stories most often told about trans people where a five year old child adamantly refuses to play with toys of a certain gender stereotype is not my story. I have virtually no memory of those years except the faintest clip of me running down a hallway in my pyjamas and then staring at a line of rat poison in a corner thinking it was candy.
Given that I’m still here I don’t think I ate it.
But Barbie was never my thing. She still isn’t. I loved me some trucks and Lego. I never once felt like I was playing with the wrong toys. Indeed, I almost can’t blame my father for not seeing my transition coming. When I was a wee one I used to get all excited at Bigfoot, the large Ford monster truck, and quickly took to Nintendo NES like a duck to water. Or a duck to hunt, mayhaps. It wasn’t until I got a bit older that he began to call my masculinity into question.
In retrospect I was one hell of a tomboy and I have no regrets about this. Why should I? The story that is most often told about us involves little trans girls insisting on playing with dolls and walking around in mom’s high heels. Does this stuff happen? Of course it does. Even I played with mum’s shoes. But it is not the only definitive trans story. It certainly wasn’t my story. For my money Lego are the coolest toys ever for all genders. I felt comfortable with how I was raised, in that respect. Despite my father’s abusiveness I had a more or less enviable childhood. I thought nothing of the fact that there were times when I was little that I’d look in mirrors with my penis tucked between my legs.
There are phrases that are often bandied about in regards to us, such as “woman trapped in a man’s body” or vice versa. Even I’m guilty of using that to describe myself. But that is not my phrase, it only very imprecisely describes how I felt, and it is but the faintest approximation of many trans lives I’ve read about and know personally: including my own. I never felt trapped in my body, even as it masculinised. I didn’t like it, certainly, and I hated my facial hair but I didn’t shave it out of laziness. But trapped? No, not quite. Even to this day, with everything I now know and despite the occasional envy I find myself feeling of certain cis women or other trans women, I do not feel trapped in this form. I’m more grateful for it than anything else, oddly.
To say I was trapped in a man’s body would be a very old fashioned and ciscentric way of putting it. A way to help the uninformed more easily understand my situation. In reality I came to understand the fluidity of gender identity, gender presentation and an understanding that my body did not limit me to one way of life or one way of being. How I came to that knowledge was part of a long and often circuitous journey that took place mostly in high school. How and why did that happen? Because little Quinnae lived in her own world.
If there was ever any indication that I didn’t feel quite right with the world around me it was my intense desire to escape from it. All children are imaginative, and often beautifully so. But in my case there was a clear desire to utterly disassociate from the world around me as often as possible. For me, every day brought a new symphony of imagination where I was something else. I loved my stuffed animals loads and often played with them, pretending they were real, but their roles in my life were not to attend a tea party, no. They were players in my orchestras and students in my classrooms, with instruments and implements I had made using paper and spaghetti noodles. Oh how I loved spaghetti noodles…
I would use them to reinforce everything I made from paper, to keep it together.
Then there was the paper. Paper everything. I put traffic lights and street signs all over the house and pretended to drive around it. I built mockups of paper cities combining elements of London and Seattle and New York into my vision of a super metropolis. Over and over and over again for years. I built the Mushroom Kingdom. I built Ancient Rome. I destroyed them with earthquakes and space invasions and built them right back up again. I begged dad to get me a whiteboard so I could teach my classes with it and one day he obliged me by getting a huge one he’d found one day in the garbage. After that I just went to town on teaching. I used the textbooks from all my classes at primary school and unsurprisingly I aced all of my tests without studying.
There’s nothing unusual about a child flying away into their fantasies and their imaginations, and maybe that’s the point of all of this. So many trans narratives as articulated by cis people focus on what’s “wrong”. Being imaginative isn’t gendered, of course. Some psychiatrists might say I wasn’t really trans because I pretended to be James Bond for much of my middle school years.
You should see the cool gadgets I made. The cell phone car remote, the laser watch, the gadget laden briefcase. I did it all. I played James Bond, M (male and female), Moneypenny, and the Bond girls and villains. I was a one girl show with every fantasy I enacted, often talking to myself in a variety of voices. I still smile and flush with embarrassment all at the same time when I look back on it all… and also feel a sense of pride in all the laminated ID cards and credit cards I made.
There are moments now when I lament what I might have missed had I been raised as a girl, and yet looking at what young women are made to go through in their youth I feel almost glad I missed it, for I might well have hated it all.
My style these days is feminine and formal, the caricatures of myself that often accompany my posts are a good approximation of my button down blouse and skirt style. But I think I’d have been an overalls-girl as a kid and would’ve resented anything that compelled me to wear a dress.
I often feel ashamed to admit that as if that makes me somehow illegitimate as a trans woman. Yet I know in my heart it doesn’t. My road was unique and to see myself as lesser is to accept the cis stereotype that all trans people must be just so. So I was a tomboy, sue me. I live under the whim of no psychiatrist and I thank the goddess every day that this is so, for I know that some might look askance at me were I to relate this tale of my childhood. Some would have said that I was not truly trans for that, or that I might have been ‘just a crossdresser’, and sought to make my life a misery.
Yet what I got out of my childhood was a zest for independence, and I know I’d never have been happy had I accepted the whims of those who thought they knew better.
But something else happened in my childhood as well.
We are often told, usually by transphobic cis women, that because trans women didn’t grow up as girls they cannot truly know what it’s like to be a woman. Needless to say, I always disagreed with that, though I found it hard to put my response into words until I really sat down with my childhood and gazed back through that dusty looking glass. When I was a kid I internalised the social messages being doled out for both sexes. While my parents insisted I was a boy and I believed them, I still looked with curiosity at what was meant for the girls at school and came to internalise other things as well. Things that would eventually come to make me hate myself.
I saw how my father treated my mother, how he hit her, yelled at her, belittled her. I saw her weep and I saw her appear to be powerless against the man who was eight inches taller than her. I remember my own father would berate me for crying or talking about my own feelings and how men ought not express such things. I saw the way girls were portrayed on television in the 90s as squealy, fashion obsessed herds in rhinestone and pink and wondered “is that what being a girl is supposed to be?” I saw all of my favourite TV shows and their male protagonists and figured men were naturally more interesting than girls with their one-dimensionality.
I internalised these things and so much more, as many young women do. It took its toll by the time I reached high school where I finally began to come to grips with the absurdity of gender stereotypes, and especially how wrong and demeaning the ones about women were. But it was entirely the truth that by the time I was 15 I hated myself for reasons I didn’t fully understand. My desire to transition was born sometime in the 10th Grade, though I wouldn’t really know it for what it was until many years later. But it had nothing to do with the fact that I was desirous of Barbie dolls or pretty dresses. It had everything to do with how I was feeling, and it was granted its first utterances when I went on feminist rants in History class against young men who asserted, ever so politely, that women who dressed a ‘certain way’ should take responsibility for their rapes.
In those moments I felt personally threatened for some reason by those words, and when the women behind me cheered I felt a sense of kinship that I didn’t understand at the time either.
This was the dawn of my awakening as both a woman and a feminist. The realisation, slow as it was, that there was power in fighting. I didn’t want to suffer in silence, I wanted to act, and to speak up, to stand and take charge of my life in the face of injustice. It’s just one more thing that doesn’t fit with the agreed upon story, for we are ever supposed to relish our silence and passivity. In my case it was that I was coming to realise such passivity was yet another lie about womanhood I’d been told. Women could stand and fight.
It was during this time that I wanted to really get to know other women, and I never fully admitted to myself why I felt more comfortable walking to the train station with a young woman than with a group of men, why I felt like a third wheel in every last group of boys I ever travelled with, or why I felt much happier at a mixed gender lunch table than even the one for nerdy guys. I did, however, using my socialisation come up with a particular rationalisation for it.
I wanted to date all of those women. At least, that’s what I told myself. After all, my father was insistently raising me to “go get ‘em tiger” and I had a penis, therefore I must be a man. Despite everything I felt and was beginning to realise about how bullshit all of that was, I knew nothing else. Happiness must come from dating and sex. Combine this with the rush of hormones that the onset of puberty brings and, well, disaster would strike oh so many times as I struggled to figure this all out.
I admired many women for many reasons. I admired Captain Janeway for her strength and leadership (and a voice I secretly and desperately wanted). I admired some of my female teachers for their skills. I admired some of my classmates for being something I couldn’t, or being smarter than I. I even admired several for their sense of fashion, wearing things I wished I could try, that I was inexplicably drawn to. In all of these cases the admiration was platonic and at times, even noble. Yet I funnelled it into sex for fear of what it meant. I could only be attracted to them in the strict sense. I could desire nothing feminine and even female role models were bad because, well, they’re female and I wasn’t, right?
Even as my father denigrated my female friends for being ugly and telling me to have more confidence in myself so I could go after “hotter” women I felt something was deeply in turmoil inside of me. I thought it was teenage angst over not getting girls, something I surely wasn’t alone in. But that was how I made myself understand it. As I reflected on all the sappy letters I wrote and my hysterically emo diary entries, I came to realise I never really fancied any of those young women or my teachers. I did not want to sleep with them, I wanted to be them. The way I had ruthlessly objectified them and shunted all of my feelings into pure carnal attraction was born of socialisation. It wasn’t just from how I was raised but from how my male peers kept trying to reinforce the idea that cross gender friendships were impossible, along with hosts of other signals.
Even through all of this some might say that this only would add up to me being a gender non conforming male. But again, there was a self-hating that emerged from all of this which was, I realised, me hating my feminine self. It was all due to how I had been raised to see women and womanhood. When I spoke out for it, as I did in class, I felt at peace with myself. When I forced myself to deny it and to act as male as possible, I loathed myself. The simplest way to describe it is that I felt more in line with my true self the more I identified as a woman, not just as an effeminate or nonconforming male.
Even in high school when I was largely oblivious to this and thought “transvestites” were jokes I played games like Knights of the Old Republic and Morrowind to rush into the alternate realities I had so craved as a child. “Why am I always a woman in these worlds?” I asked myself. Eventually, my friends asked as well. So did my father, quite angrily.
By the time high school had rolled around I’d grown out of my desire to build fantasy out of paper, crayons, and noodles, but still craved escape. So it was that I did, into every RPG I could get my hands on. I still distinctly remember the one time I tried to play a man in Morrowind I just couldn’t continue after barely reaching level two (in a game where it’s possible to get over level sixty). But then I rolled my short brown haired Breton woman and went on my merry way, fireballing and slashing my way across Vvardenfell. So it was too in every Star Wars game where I had a choice.
Suddenly, I realised, a woman could be the hero and could kick ass.
It seemed such a trivial and elementary thought. But I was raised in a sheltered environment. I was terribly asocial, my friends were the aforementioned stuffed dolls, and my parents did little to change this. I was brutally bullied in middle school and was a touch misanthropic by the time I got to high school. Through it all I’d been raised on certain media images and by my fathers’ insistent stories about the way the world was.
Which was why it took Star Wars and Star Trek to show me women could own. And it was why it took role playing games to show me that I liked being a woman who could own. I grinned with a strange sense of pride when my Knights of the Old Republic character got to call another one a “sexist pig.” A little stab of rebellion, the same way I felt back in history class when my female teacher gave me a warm smile when I stood up against the sexism of other students. It felt so right and it felt so just, despite everything I was raised with.
Each time I didn’t feel like a feminist male, I felt like a woman who was standing up for herself and her dignity. I ask cis women to remember how it felt for them as they may have felt many a time in their youth, how terrible it must have been to reckon with the fact that they were raised to hate themselves as women, or to see themselves as lesser. That they were raised with preconceived notions about who they were supposed to be that ensured they had to expend enormous amounts of energy to just untangle the lies and discover who they really were.
I had to do the same thing.
It was so strange that it took video games to cause this awakening, and perhaps it was fitting that my father constantly threatened to break the CDs and engaged in Jack Thompson-esque rantings about the evils of gaming. Yet I persisted and became comfortable with female characters, honestly lamenting other games where I didn’t have a choice. By senior year there was an abundant sense I didn’t want to acknowledge. The reason I played as females every chance I got was because I was a male every day of my life, why should I waste time in epic fantasy worlds pretending to be who I wasn’t?
I never had the courage to say that, instead coming up with circumlocutions about how I felt more in touch with my feminine side or how the female character looked better, all those old chestnuts.
I didn’t want to say, in part because of all that shame that still stalked me:
“I am a woman.”
Stay tuned for Part II, coming soon to a monitor near you.